John Singer Sargent, who was born on this day in 1856, is best known as the leading portrait artist of his generation. Raised by American expats, Sargent’s family moved around Europe until they settled in Paris. Throughout his career, he traveled the world immortalizing his adventures. Sargent produced almost 900 oil paintings and over 2,000 watercolors.
See this painting by Sargent on view in our New European Galleries.
"In the Luxembourg Gardens," 1879, by John Singer Sargent
I think of something I read about Sargent: how in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent’s heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and leonine captains of industry, his plump, owl-faced children).
- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
John Singer Sargent’s reputation among art critics has risen, fallen, and risen again. He was once among the most celebrated painters in Europe and America. He scandalised Paris with his painting Madame X, helped inspire The Picture of Dorian Gray, and was made the official artist of World War I. But when he died in 1925, artistic trends were already turning against representational art, and lush paintings of wealthy industrialists’ wives had become politically incorrect. In 1931, Lewis Mumford called him a mere “illustrator,” whose work was characterized by “contemptuous and cynical superficiality.”
Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Born in Italy to American parents, Sargent lived most of his life in Europe. He studied in the Paris studio of Carolus-Duran, and his major influences were Velazquez and the French impressionists. The latter were personal friends, particularly Claude Monet and Paul Helleu, with whom he often painted. But his style was distinct, especially his use of dark contrasts. According to one revealing story, Sargent once ran out of black paint and asked to borrow some from Monet, only to find that the Frenchman didn’t carry any.
He adapted from the impressionists his characteristic style of bold brushstrokes and tricks such as the glob of white paint that gives the necklace in Lady Agnew of Lochnaw a glimmering 3D effect. Examined up close, Sargent’s paintings appear like streaks of colour that couldn’t possibly make up the more-than-real images one actually sees when one steps back. And he combined this deceptive precision with a mastery of shading, which he enjoyed demonstrating by painting white-on-white - a demanding trick that under his brush seems like hardly any bother. As is usually the case, such apparent effortlessness was the product of painstaking discipline. His 1886 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose took months to complete, because he could paint only for a few minutes each evening when the light was perfect.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent
Sargent was also skilled at selecting poses that bring his subjects to life. Instead of forcing Homer St. Gaudens into a stale, statuesque position, he captured the boy’s candid, slouching boredom. Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron sit like they’re about to disclose some haunting secret. And Pamela, the middle Wyndham Sister, fiddles idly with her ring like the flirtatious dynamo she was. Yet his works don’t descend into bland, documentary naturalism. On the contrary, these realistic touches amplify the glamorous, sometimes otherworldly beauty that Sargent drew out of real people.
His skill at abstraction often makes his portraits more like windows into an ideal world than faithful depictions of his models. Consider Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel, now on display at the Gardner alongside a photo of the two posing. They’re by no means ugly, but on canvas, they become what they no doubt wished they were. “Women don’t ask you to make them beautiful,” he wrote, “but you can feel them wanting you to.”
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, National Galleries of Scotland
Or consider his greatest portrait, Lady Agnew. The real Gertrude Vernon was a moderately attractive noblewoman who was ill much of her life, including when the artist was working. But the painting, finished in just six sittings with no preliminary sketches, transcends reality. She vibrates with a liveliness only thinly veiled with nonchalance, just as the translucent sleeves of her gown shield the arms beneath. Her leisurely pose, on one hip diagonal with the chair, contrasts with the hypnotic attentiveness of her gaze, giving the impression - to borrow a line from Sargent’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad - of “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Lady Agnew goes beyond formal portraiture, and transports the viewer into a realm of elegance and intrigue.
Despite efforts by later critics to marginalise his work, Sargent influenced generations of painters - from John White Alexander to Daniel E. Greene to Ariana Richards. Perhaps his finest admirer in recent years was Pino Daeni, whose sensual oils adapted Sargent’s sweeping brush strokes and lively poses to a more exotic color palette. One can only hope that more people can give Sargent his artistic due. As the master of elevated grace, his legacy will forever be cherished by those who long for an art that expresses life as it could and ought to be.
Happy New 2022 Year! ✨ Friends, who got our 2022 calendar, know that John Singer Sargent's " The Daughters and The Cats of Edward Darley Boit" is the painting of the month! 🖼 😻 Happy January, friends!❄️ Zarathustra the Cat stays with you in his art in 2022😽 💡 The link to the calendar is in the highlight and in the bio
posted on Instagram - https://instagr.am/p/CYMY4B7K9Sl/
Inspired by several trips to Italy and Switzerland, John Singer Sargent took a break from figure painting and turned to landscapes. In this image the artist captures the stream’s foaming water with thickly applied white paint. To create the effect of sunlight through rising mist, Sargent employs raw color, such as red, green, violet, and gold, recalling the paintings of his friend Claude Monet.
"A Waterfall," around 1910, by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918)
Watercolour over pencil on paper, 39.4 x 52.7 cm
Imperial War Museums, London.